I met James White when I stayed for a month in an apartment in Loja, Ecuador, where he lives. We shared a courtyard and many conversations about politics, food, wine, and Ecuador. He also shared with me his washing machine, for which I was grateful. A native Texan with a big heart, he describes himself as a “witty and sarcastic left wing socialist,” and that’s a pretty accurate portrait! He spent 35 years in the wine business and knows his wine stuff. Because James is a true dog lover, I thought it would be great for him to read this poem.
I’ve known Susan Medill Barton for thirty years. I met her through her daughter, Jen, my high school pal. Over the years, Susan has taught me lots about what’s lovely in life, from witty conversation to sardines with Tabasco on crackers to champagne before noon. I’ve always admired her taste and elegance, but also her curiosity about the world, her passion for learning both the practical and eclectic (when I was in high school, she took Latin with my peers), and her sense of humor (I asked Susan how she wanted to be described here, and she said, “I’m an old lady who likes figs"). A gardener and loyal supporter of the arts, she always seems game for something creative, so I thought she’d be a great person to read a poem. She chose what I consider the most challenging poem to read aloud in the book, and like so many things she does, she accomplishes it with enviable aplomb. Susan lives in Janesville, Wisconsin with her dashing husband, Larry.
If you’d like to know more about the odd relationship between figs and wasps, you can check out information here. As Susan puts it: “There is a certain satisfaction in crunching a wasp.”
I met Jim and Jeff Hagan when Jeff sent me a note with a picture of the Madison Skyway Drive-In Theater. He’d grown up in Madison, and his brother Jim had passed the poem along via their family listserv. Since Jim and Jeff are two of fourteen siblings, that pretty much doubled my existing readership. I was giving a reading that day at Brews + Prose in Cleveland, and they came. I found out they’re both really smart, funny guys, which makes sense because their father was a comic. (He was also an Ohio politician. You can read more about Robert Hagan here.) I’m so glad to have met them! Quite lucky to have this pair of brothers take part in my project and let me share their voices.
Jim Hagan once won the William Redding Poetry Prize awarded by Larry's Tavern in Columbus Ohio, a long running venue for local poets. He has had poems and essays published in The Plain Dealer, Penguin Review, Ploughshares, and Heartlands: A Magazine of Midwest Art and Writing.
Jeff Hagan is a writer and editor who grew up in Madison, Ohio and, with his next-oldest-sister, inappropriately accompanied an older brother and his date to see Goodbye, Columbus at a very early age at the Madison Skyway. He told me, “When (Jim) sent the Skyway poem to our family listserv it reached me pretty quickly, having traipsed in the same ruins (though I was also looking for something additional—my own memory).”
Laurie Kincer is a librarian at Cuyahoga County Public Library who works on their author events team and coordinates the William N. Skirball Writers' Center at the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Branch. The Writers' Center, which opened in 2015, is a welcoming space for writers in northern Ohio. It offers free writing programs, private writing rooms, books and magazines for writers, laptop computers, and a light-filled area with comfortable furniture and a fireplace. Laurie holds an MLIS from Kent State University and an MA in literature from Case Western Reserve University. She grew up in the small town of Vermilion, Ohio, whose seagulls, playgrounds, and parades were aptly captured in these poems.
I met Laurie this past summer at the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Library when she was recording Cleveland-area poets reading for an archive project designed by poet Dave Lucas, who is serving as the library's inaugural William N. Skirball Writers' Center writer-in-residence. The recording studio was warm and close, but we had fun. She has all the qualities we love in a librarian—smarts, humor, friendliness, enthusiasm, and an open mind.
When I asked Laurie if she’d be interested in recording some poems for People Who Aren’t Me Reading My Poetry, she chose these three and provided this video of gulls in Vermilion, Ohio, which I think captures well what I was trying to get at in the poem.
Her recordings of these poems were made in the recording studio at the library, which patrons can reserve for their use.
Video by Laurie Kincer. Photos by author.
Lisa Martinez is a Washington, D.C. area E-RYT 200 certified yoga instructor and mother of six boys. From 2005-2008, she lived in Mumbai, India with her family, and upon returning to the United States, she earned her credentials and began teaching yoga. You can read more of her moving story about embracing yoga to help her heal after the death of her fourth son here on her website. You can also check out some other amazing videos of Lisa on her Instagram account: strongyogamama, including this one of her and her dog Georgie. I admire her physical and personal strength and the joy and energy she dedicates to her work, family, faith, and fun. Often, when I see Lisa in a post on social media, she’s upside down.
Lisa and I first met when we were cheerleaders for different local schools in the eighth grade. In high school together, we tried out for the squad. Lisa injured herself during the tryouts and didn’t make the cut. I didn’t make the cut either, but because I wasn’t very good (“flaccid roundoffs”). Neither of us tried again, because, as Lisa says, “it was destiny.” When I asked her if she would read this poem, I jokingly suggested she could read it while upside down. As you can see, Lisa likes a challenge.
Photographs by Tyrell Heaton. See more of his work here.
Garrett Sohnly was born in Sylvania, Ohio. He is a sophomore interior design major at Columbus College of Art and Design who switched from fashion and fine arts. He typically fabricates in furniture, sculpture, painting, illustration, and costume; which he would like to move into a more commercially designed scale. He may also be a coffee addict, but still goes to bed at 9.
Garrett and I have actually never met in person, but I heard about him from my friend Josh Butts, who taught Garrett in a writing course at Columbus College of Art and Design, where they read my book. I reached out to Garrett, and he delighted me with this recording and his artwork. I thought these paintings fit well with the mood of the poem. Look for another poem read by Garrett and more of his artwork in a future post.
Howard Fencl is vice president for crisis communications firm Hennes Communications in Cleveland, Ohio, where he can watch peregrine falcons from his Tower City office. Over the last three decades, he’s been everything from assistant news director at WKYC-TV to president of one of the first internet service providers in Northeast Ohio to director of communications for The New Cleveland Campaign to guitarist and songwriter for the band Boho Zen. He has asked Mohammed Ali what it was like to meet the Beatles and interviewed the guy who watched over Ted William’s frozen, decapitated head. Howard always has something up his sleeve (though not doves—yet). He speaks Russian, can whip up an imitation Mounds bar, knows what beer to drink with a steamed bun, and rules his front porch with his wife and high-school sweetheart, Sue. It seems fitting to me that Howard chose to read this particular poem, considering what he does and what he’s done.
Mary Ostergren is a high school sophomore in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’ve known her since the day my sister gave birth to her. When Mary was a little kid, her puppet-crazed auntie (me) gave her a cow puppet. Then Mary gave me a cow puppet. So we have matching cow puppets. Hers is Daisy. Mine is Butterfat. A number of years ago, my former student Jarrad asked me to give him a writing assignment. I told him to write a sonnet, and I would, too. I looked around the house for something to write a sonnet about, and I found Butterfat. I can’t express how proud I am of my niece, who, in addition to having a great voice, is a reader of challenging books, a hiker of trails, a connoisseur of both dresses and ice cream, an incredibly fast runner, a wrestler of complex ideas, and a fun person to have around, among many other things. We recorded her in our kitchen.
Lashanna Lawler is an artist, poet, actress, portrait model and photographer. She received her B.A. in English Literature and Theater Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from Swarthmore College. She has studied painting and drawing at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia, The Art Students League in New York City and The Cleveland Museum of Art. She is an avid gardener who enjoys practicing her craft in her home studio and on location. She lives and works in Cleveland, OH.
I met Lashanna Lawler when she stopped by my table at Loganberry Books’ Author Alley during the Larchmere Festival in Shaker Heights this summer. She struck me as someone with a powerful creative spirit, and I’m thrilled to have her as the inaugural reader in my People Who Aren’t Me Reading My Poetry Project. Enjoy her interpretation and the image she shared—a detail from her painting "Feathers." My husband, Cris, recorded her reading over the phone.
Read more about "Killing Songbirds the Compassionate Way" in this review of Local Extinctions by Heather Lang in The Volta Blog.
I do my most creative thinking in the shower (though not necessarily my most productive, since many ideas dry up after toweling off). Something about water on my head sets off sparks. Quite a few showers ago, back in May, I had an idea: what if I gathered recordings of other people—people who aren’t me—reading poems from my new book, Local Extinctions? I’m not sure why this particular idea soaked into my brain, but it did.
Sometimes after a reading, people tell me how important they think it is to hear poetry read by the author. It’s nice, that’s true, but as the author, I’m interested in how the work resonates with the audience. I’ve not a big fan of the sound of my own voice. I don’t mean that I don’t like talking; I just don’t love the way my voice clanks along when I hear it on a recording. But the world is blessed with wonderful voices—melodious and nuanced and evocative and full of character. What would it be like to hear those voices read my words?
I’m hoping this project will excite connections between people and poems, or more broadly, people and words. When you read a poem you enjoy, the words shift how you see something. In these days of easy words with tenuous meaning, poetry may remind us that language has power, both good and bad, and builds or breaks our relationships with one another. There is enough breaking out there; I’d rather build.
Thank you to the friends, family, and former strangers (now collaborators) who also thought this project would be fun and who put time and breath into it. I haven’t set out to create professional recordings in a studio (though some may be), so many of these voices will be as you’d hear them over a phone or from a computer mic or in a kitchen, which just adds layers to the experience of listening. There will also be multiple versions of poems, so you can hear what they sound like on different people.
Coming soon—the first readers!